Thoughts on Joe Paterno One Year Later

by Richard Kostelanetz (April 2013)


The late Penn State football coach was a distinguished alumnus of a university, Brown (mine), and of Brooklyn’s Jesuit high school whose distinguished intellectual alumni are more numerous, even though it no longer exists. Returning from WWII he entered Brown not at 18, as is still customary, but just before his 20th birthday, thanks to a personal scholarship provided both to him and his younger brother George by a local comic-book distributor. It was a time when Italian-Americans were scarce at private universities, let alone those in the WASPy Ivy League, not only because of discrimination against them, but also because Italian-American parents didn’t believe a college education worth time and money. (Nor around 1950 did my Sephardic Jewish relatives.)

While at Brown in the late 1940s, Paterno was at 5’ 6” an unusually diminutive quarterback and defensive cornerback who also majored in English, as Brown, not unlike other Ivy League schools, did not (and still does not) offer physical education or its cute variants as an academic major. According to whomever contributes to Wikipedia, Paterno in his defensive position on his college team still holds the Brown record for interceptions in a single season. Courage he must have had.

Upon graduation he accepted a job at Penn State, then an historic “cow college,” much like Kansas State, Iowa State, and Texas A&M, all initially agricultural “land-grant” schools, and thus academically on a lower level than, respectively, the Universities of Pennsylvania, Kansas, Iowa, and Texas, the last three likewise state schools. Too short to play professional football, even around 1950, Paterno had simply followed his Brown coach, Rip Engle, who was hired at PSU.

Beginning as an assistant coach in 1950, Paterno succeeded Engle upon his retirement in 1966 and subsequently built a program constructed around three goals—winning games, recruiting top high school prospects, and getting his players degrees that would give them an advantage in the adult world, even if they didn’t turn pro. Boasting that he didn’t care if his players liked him, he benched those who flunked their courses and committed other infractions. In the second respect, the ABC radio intellectual John Bachelor reported that as “a big guy” in suburban Philadelphia high school in the late 1960s he got a personal letter from Paterno inviting him to apply to Penn State. (JB went to Princeton instead.)

In the third respect, consider that Paterno tried to bring certain Ivy League values to a place, an historic aggie school, remember, and an athletics program that would not have otherwise observed them. Given the problems plaguing teenagers coming to a residential college, consider that perhaps no other university teacher in America was as successful as Paterno in building for so many decades—try six!—not only a succession of nationally competitive teams but proto-professional individuals. Single-handedly, he simply gave Penn State more presence in America than it might have otherwise had—certainly more presence than, say, Iowa State, Kansas State, and Texas A&M—in a country where presence attracts both students and faculty.

Paterno incidentally made himself the most prominent person at a school so isolated that, when I was invited there a decade ago, the nearest airport was far away and the nearest Greyhound bus station only slightly closer. In the otherwise fresh air I was reminded of a farm odor smelled on my earlier visit to PSU in 1970 and then at some other cow colleges visited by me. As the Wikipedia volunteers judged in an entry for “Penn State” in January 2012, “The school is best known for its football team, which draws a very large following. Penn State’s Beaver Stadium has the second largest seating capacity of any stadium in the nation.” And all its seats got filled. No doubt about that.

Britannica.com has an entry on Paterno because, so the anonymous EB gatekeepers necessarily assume, his achievements will be remembered into the 21st Century. No other PSU professor recently mentioned to me got an individual entry in Britannica, whose website offers the opportunity to check names, though not the entire entries. Simply, when only the football coach at a purported “research university” scores in Britannica, it ought to doubt itself. Of course, when no one is singled out in Britannica, because its last entrant died, it has a deeper problem.

Paterno led in making Penn State more than an agricultural school—first by winning games and then by raising money, not only for the school in general but for expanding a library that is now in part named after him. "Without a great library, you can't have a great university," this Ivy League boy famously declared; it’s no less true if a football coach says it. He and his wife also personally endowed two “Paterno Family” chairs not in biz, sports, or agriculture but, please note, in the humanities. Though Paterno himself was politically conservative, one of these chairs went to an English professor commonly regarded as a lefty. No other college coach in America, in any sport known to me, did as much for the intellectual atmosphere of his employer.

No doubt as well that Paterno exploited his privileged situation, for instance reportedly threatening administrators with his refusal to do PSU fund-raising if they didn’t kow-tow to him on some flexible issue. While objectionable, this is scarcely exceptional. That’s what academics do, given an opportunity, with varying success.

’Tis said that Paterno protected his players who’d been arrested, but this charge, even accompanied by gross numbers, fails to acknowledge that American universities, in loco parentis, customarily protect nearly all their students and professors from their troubles with the outside world, whether they be football players or not. Ivy League colleges are particularly dogged about this. If you don’t believe me, try, for a test, to get from any university, public as well as private, any verifiable information about student suicides or about plagiarism suits against professors.

Given how universities are structured, Paterno was scarcely the first campus celebrity to insist on perks and dispensations, not only for himself but for his favorite students, while doing his basic job. Nor will Paterno be the last. Commentators who pretend otherwise are dumb, dumb, dumb.

Remember that anything visible to state legislators persuades them to appropriate more money to public schools—in this case, not just the main PSU campus, but more than two dozen “state” branches all over Pennsylvania--that have always been less dependent upon private donors and their endowments.

According again to Wikipedia, Paterno seriously considered several offers to coach professional football teams, never to accept them. More crucially, why didn’t a classier America university hire him away? I’m told that Boston College, a Jesuit school, made an offer. So did Ivy Yale. (Rare is a Ivy League alumnus who refuses an invitation to return. Or a New Yorker to New York.) One mark of an academic star, in any field, is that he or she moves upward from one position to another, supposedly carrying his aura with him.

As the little guy from Brooklyn didn’t go elsewhere, he must have loved Penn State as much as many people there loved him. Perhaps he felt as well a certain responsibility for his yearly batch of new recruits—to take them through PSU to graduation. Paterno lived in a modest house near the campus, kept his telephone number listed, and walked to work. Several thousand reportedly came to a campus memorial service for him. No other PSU employee would ever draw a fraction of that number for a comparable ceremony.

How come? Everyone ever attending a residential college knows that a winning team makes everyone feel better. It really does, even at Ivy League schools, most of whom alumni can remember, say, when Harvard beat Yale in football or the reverse. (Nor can I forget that in my senior year the Brown football team lost every game.) In 2007 one of Paterno’s star players, Franco Harris, later a professional running back, now an entrepreneur, reportedly put Paterno’s bespectacled face, not exactly photogenic, on the label of his products Super Donuts and Super Buns in Central Pennsylvania. Now that refects love.

Simply by staying at University Park, formerly called College Park, refusing sabbaticals, Little Joe had an outsized impact on the university. By the measure of producing alumni with professional careers, let alone making millionaires out of minority men whose began poor (e.g., Franco Harris), his football program was probably more successful than, say, Penn State’s writing program or painting classes, much to the consternation of the writing and art professors. The only other American football coach to define a provincial school was Eddie Robinson, at the historic black college Grambling, a Louisiana institution much smaller than PSU. That reminds me of another professor who defined a college in his lifetime, though he might be forgotten now; and that was William Levi Dawson, the choir director at Tuskegee Institute from the early 1930s into the 1950s. (I recall him conducting me, among 200 others, at All-State choir in Syracuse, NY, in 1956.)

In a New York Times op-ed, Professor Michael Bérubé, one Paterno chair beneficiary, wrote that he “had but one substantial encounter with Mr. Paterno,” at a populous reception. I found this incredible, inexplicably peculiar, not only for the obvious reason that, as patron and beneficiary, each should have been curious about the other, but also for a secondary one of something common in their backgrounds. While Paterno graduated from the principal Jesuit high school once in Brooklyn, Bérubé graduated from Regis, the toughest Jesuit high school currently in Manhattan, nearly two generations later. In my observation, guys who survive Jesuit high schools usually want to compare notes. Why didn’t they meet more than once? One hypothesis is that Bérubé might have heard of Paterno’s displeasure at a choice necessarily made not by the benefactor but by the PSU English department.

I remember reading somewhere that in his office Paterno played Italian operas continuously, no doubt introducing many of his players to a classical music they’d not heard before. He benched star players for missing class. Never was his program demoted by the ruthless police at the N.C.A.A. Given his Jesuit education, Paterno must have known Latin and Greek, as well as classic literature. Bérubé recalls in their single meeting, “I talked to him about Vergil and Moby-Dick, which he said he had recently reread. He noted that Ahab is furious that the whale can descend to the depths while Ahab himself remains on the surface of things.” (What’s the subtext here, lit-professor Mike?) For cultural class, apart from other achievements, no other college sports coach in this country ranked near Paterno. None.

Whereas other college coaches wear tailored suits, Paterno routinely appeared with rolled up trousers and white socks. As a thickly bespectacled short guy trotting onto a football field, even into his 80s, he seemed lost among behemoths. A spectator new to football might have mistaken him for a senior ball boy or perhaps a chaperone. Interviewed on radio or television, he reminded everyone of his origins in Brooklyn, which with its undersized immigrants hasn’t contributed as much to American football as, say, northern Ohio.

When I visited Penn State, perhaps a decade ago, I heard in certain professors the same resentment I already found at other schools whose most famous and highest-paid faculty are sports coaches—among them, Syracuse, the Universities of Arkansas and Kentucky. As an outsider with a larger view of the world, I was amused, much as I’m distantly amused, say, by Puerto Rican intellectuals’ obsession with “independence,” and so didn’t think Penn State exceptional until recognizing that the professors’ petty resentments focused not upon athletics in general but, amazingly, upon one and only one man—Joe Paterno. How to measure an institution whose most prominent professor earned so much disrespect from other professors? Second-rate? Third? Fourth? Though a helluva martinet on his home turf, this Joe seemed also too big for PSU britches.

Perhaps reflecting this negative faculty sentiment, the PSU president, Graham Spanier, personally went to Paterno’s home to ask him to resign after some losing seasons early in this century. Even though Paterno was already in his late seventies at the time, he refused. Little Joe apparently attained such a level of Presence that he could confidently tell his prez to get lost. His PSU football teams did better afterwards until, just before his disgrace, he was credited with winning more games in total than any other college coach ever, so far.

When the Sandusky scandal broke, some Penn State people claimed that the head coach must have known about earlier complaints and did nothing more about them that forward them to higher officials, rather than alerting the police. This would be standard procedure in an institution as hierarchical as a corporation or, say, the military. As Professor Bérubé noted in the New York Times, “Penn State has been an emphatically ‘top-down’ university; decisions, even about academic programs, are made by the central administration, and faculty members are ‘consulted’ afterward.”

Remember as well that embedded in this hierarchy for decades, as a lifetime company man, Paterno forwarded the complaint upstairs, probably to his ostensible boss, the PSU athletic director at the time (whose name I cannot find), allegations made by an underling. As he told a Washington Post reporter, “I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was.” Purportedly for respecting such procedure, PSU dismissed him, though it might have fired him (or another staffer) had he ventured outside sacrosanct “university procedure.” Talk about setting a bad example for itself with a no-win call.

Early in April 2012, ESPN released a statement that Paterno reportedly prepared but, as he died, never got to read. Here is his summary:

As the Grand Jury report notes, I was subpoenaed last January to testify regarding an incident in 2002. As my very brief testimony established, my role was limited to a single report made to me by an assistant coach in 2002. The coach in question came to my house on a Saturday morning and informed me that he witnessed former coach Jerry Sandusky in a shower with a young boy. The coach made it clear that he felt strongly that there was something inappropriate going on and that he was very upset by what he saw. The coach made no specific allegations of any identified sexual act, nor did he use any graphic terms-–just the idea that what he saw was wrong and that he did not know what to do next.

At that time I told the coach that he had done the right thing and that I would take the appropriate next step. After consideration I determined that, given Sandusky’s status as a retired employee governed by a retirement package negotiated with the administration, I had no authority to act directly. The next day, in accordance with University policy, I contacted the head of my department and related what was told to me. That was the last time the matter was brought to my attention until this investigation and I assumed that the men I referred it to handled the matter appropriately.

Assuming that this text is authentic, can’t we say that Paterno behaved properly?

Whereas other PSU officials purportedly involved in the PSU coverup of Sandusky used emails that survived, Paterno didn’t email and so didn’t leave an electronic trail. Consider as well that Paterno was in his mid-seventies when he was befuddled by a problem without precedent in his own career. I know from my own experience at 72 that unprecedented problems can be paralyzing. While I can continue to write coherent prose, much as Paterno coached football teams, unfamiliar obstacles, beginning with new technologies, stump me. More intellectually nimble we don’t get, which is less an excuse than a fact.

Though Paterno did no wrong in the past, some would argue that he failed to do what others now judge should have been right—that’s Right. Need Monday morning quarterbacks be reminded that sins of omission differ from those consciously committed? As for Paterno going to the police, consider that law-enforcement agencies typically regard third-party “hearsay” skeptically. (If you don’t believe me, try calling yourself about a crime that you heard about but did not witness first-hand.)

Soon after Paterno was fired, his wife was reportedly forbidden access to the PSU swimming pool, which I remember as magnificent, because technically she was no longer a faculty spouse. In ethical football, such a flagrant bonehead attack on someone down is called “a cheap shot.”

As my college roommate, Wilson B. Brown, now retired from the University of Winnipeg, wrote me: “There are probably thousands or tens of thousands of men of Paterno’s generation, who just told the assistant scout master, the residential house master, the deviant priest to go somewhere else, and maybe spread the word quietly to watch this guy. That was the way it was done.  The proof of the crime would be hard to prove legally, and the consequences for the alleged perpetrator so severe (particularly if he was innocent) that it was easier to bury it than to deal with it.”

Another friend recalls, “I grew up in a Catholic parish with a pedophile, who, of all things, was the Boy Scout troop chaplain. He was quietly sent off to a parish in northern New Hampshire, presumably where his damage could be minimized. We boys just knew to avoid him—it was somewhat of a joke among us, as I recall.”

How many of us today, embedded in a hierarchy, would instead inform an outside agency, such as the police? Two decades ago? Can you imagine his fellow professors or his employer, so protective of “reputation,” rebuking even the biggest man on campus for whistle-blowing to outside police? Had the assistant coach who witnessed the purported crime first hand called the police directly, if not immediately after the crime occurred, then after he judged that his higher PSU bosses failed to act appropriately, he could have been terminated for violating sacrosanct university procedure.

Instead of accepting Paterno’s request to finish the season with his team, higher PSU officials abruptly fired him over the telephone. This turned out to be a stupid, shitty move. As it was known that he was already suffering from lung cancer, everyone smart should have assumed that his survival depended upon resilience and determination that were fragile. Once his devotion was no longer respected, his heart no doubt broken, he apparently suffered a relapse that killed him two months later. While some might charge PSU dummies with murdering the goose that laid their golden eggs, all would agree their moves didn’t contribute to keeping him alive.

Paterno’s death also took public heat off Sandusky, who was the alleged perpetrator here, and also off Paterno himself, who, if still alive, would have needed to account for why he didn’t report directly to the police, rather than, as is claimed, directing the Sandusky problem upstairs to higher university officials who did nothing. In his defense, it could now be claimed that Paterno lacked a precedent.

Already black-marked, Penn State now looks less like the “research institution” it aspires to be but a second-rate provincial state college. I know of tenured PSU professors who are applying for jobs elsewhere, fearing that any connection to Penn State to themselves will jeopardize their professional careers. Veteran professors will retire elsewhere (while those at beloved institutions rarely do). At the memorial services for Paterno, some well-paid factotum should have apologized for the trustees’ terminating him as they did. It’s hard for bosses egregiously stupid then to make a smart move. PSU could become another cow college again.

As an outsider agnostic about the place of sports in higher education, I queried Rick Trainor, also a Brown alumnus, in his case from the late 1960s or two decades after Paterno. Not much bigger than Joe, Rick at Brown made his sport debate. Now Sir Richard, KBE, FRHS, FKC (swallow them apples, if an American can), Trainor is currently the principal (or chief) of King’s College London, where I happened to be a Fulbright Scholar some decades ago. Consider his reply thoughtful:

UK universities already have athletic teams, of course. What they don't have is massive investment in professional coaching, stadiums etc. or in sports scholarships (though as you know the Ivies get by without the latter). A change to an American-style system would entail a considerable shift of resources, attention, and ethos. The gain would be a clearer sense of identification with their institutions by students and alumni. The transition would be interesting!

Ah, yes, Rick, right you probably are. If the older London colleges and even the newer provincial red bricks had the will and the money to develop winning teams in sports more visible than your debate team, they could probably gain the stronger sentimental old-school-tie attachments now in England only available to those institutions lumped as Oxbridge. That development could in turn culturally raise the red bricks in particular, and perhaps the London schools as well, much as Joe Paterno’s football program elevated his historic cow college. Perhaps? Probably?

The smartest move for the PSU Scheisskopfen now would be renaming the principal state university after Paterno. This could be done over the telephone that they’ve already mastered for consequential moves. Usually this sort of accolade honors a large donation, as when Glassboro State College in New Jersey became Rowan University. However, consider that Paterno has already made his contribution.

I drafted most of this a year ago, just after Paterno’s death, but withheld it, pending the results of official inquiries. As the first report, made by Louis Freeh, in other respects a dubious character in my mind, regarded Paterno as culpable, I held it back some more. Now that a second report has appeared, this by Richard Thornburgh, the former US Attorney General, exonerating Paterno (though not others) I realize that I too was intimidated by press reports, even though I regarded them skeptically, and so apologize to anyone who might have gained some intelligence from my thoughts had they appeared earlier.

____________________________

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

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